Let’s face it: In the United States, a college degree isn’t what it used to be. These days, 46% of recent college graduates consider themselves underemployed and in jobs that do not require their college degrees—degrees that have already cost many of these grads and their families hundreds of thousands of dollars in student loans, with no promise of a job and salary to pay those loans back. But engineering majors are said to be outliers. Engineering as a field is widely considered one of, if not the most, lucrative academic paths for students seeking well-paid employment immediately following college. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates that nearly 40% of the 45 most highly paid professions that require only a bachelor’s degree are in engineering. Salaries for all biomedical engineers, entry level or not, are among the highest, with a median pay of US$86,960. And engineering departments at colleges are not shy to advertise these numbers: the Biomedical Engineering Department at the University of Texas, Austin, declares on its Web page that, “electing to graduate with a major in biomedical engineering opens the door to an ever-growing amount of job opportunities,” citing a 72%, ten-year job growth forecast. Boston University’s program cites U.S. News and World Report’s claim that BME is the country’s fastest-growing occupation.
But is a BME major really a path to prosperity, or are colleges making empty promises?
Despite some seemingly promising figures, some graduates of BME programs feel their bachelor’s degrees are limited. During school, they typically learn a little about a lot—the engineering equivalent of a jack-of-all trades—but that can actually put graduates at a disadvantage for getting jobs in the field after college.
Sarah Wheeling graduated with a bachelor’s degree in BME from Cornell University in 2009. She entered the program thinking, “Oh, everyone gets a job when they get out,” she says—but that turned out not to be the case. Neither she nor most of her friends could find any jobs in BME when they graduated from their programs. And among those who have found semirelevant financial success? One is an environmental engineer, and another reviews patents. Wheeling, who is currently working as a process engineer for a pharmaceutical company, believes “it wouldn’t have been possible for me to get a job without a master’s.” And even after getting her master’s degree, she had to work odd jobs for a year before landing something in her field. She was lucky, too. It was only through a friend’s family connection that she ended up with her current job at all.
Wheeling’s trouble was not because of a low grade point average or lack of effort. In fact, few graduates of undergraduate programs in BME end up with a BME job right out of college. According to the University of Texas at Austin, one third of their BME undergraduates go on to graduate school, another third enter medical school, with relatively few graduates in that remaining third going on to get jobs in the BME field. These numbers are similar for BME undergraduate programs at universities around the country. During the 2010–2011 academic year alone, 4,066 undergraduates received BME degrees—but over the next ten years, just 520 new jobs are expected to become available per year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Add the number of graduating BME master’s and Ph.D. students on top of that, and the probability of a graduate actually getting a job looks pretty dismal.
Too Much Too Soon
BME as a field didn’t really kick off until the first academic programs emerged in the 1950s. The field grew somewhat haphazardly until the 1990s, when money to develop BME academic programs began pouring in. Then, after the Clinton administration streamlined the process for researchers to get BME grants through the National Institutes of Health in the early 2000s, the field blossomed. In recent years, it has expanded into specialties like pharmaceuticals, medical devices, prosthetics, disease research, medical software engineering, tissue engineering, and diagnostic devices, to name a few.
In their struggle to keep up with the quickly growing field, many students believe academic programs might be putting too much into four years, requiring not only premed requirements but also coursework in a variety of engineering fields plus basic liberal arts requirements. And though the field is exploding, and the number of available jobs increasing, a huge percentage growth in a very narrow field is still small growth compared to the supply of graduating biomedical engineers. From 2002 to 2011, numbers of BME majors rose by more than 300%. Master’s degrees have risen by more than 200% and Ph.D. degrees by more than 400%. Many students feel the field has become so broad that they get breadth in their education at the expense of depth. They leave after four years with a superficial knowledge of the field, but no deep mastery.
In addition, “my professors were mostly Ph.D. types,” says Anne Brown, a graduate of the BME program at Duke University who is currently in medical school. “Though a few of them worked in the industry, most of my professors stayed within academia,” she says. She thinks this could have made it a little tougher for students to find role models in college to guide them through navigating the job market. After all, so few had even left the university setting. To pursue a career right out of college, it took some extra effort that wasn’t pushed too hard at school. “You really had to go beyond the classroom to learn about other opportunities,” she says.
Many graduates of BME programs have countered these issues by considering their bachelor’s degree a mere stop along their academic road. One such graduate, Allie Speidel, planned from the very beginning to go to medical school. She graduated with high honors from the BME program at Duke University in 2011. When she was first starting out, she planned on doing an M.D./Ph.D. degree program, but she later realized that she would rather do research. After college, she began a master’s program in cardiac regeneration at the Imperial College of London and decided to stay on for a Ph.D. degree.
“I do feel, to some extent, [that] as much as biomedical engineering was a nice major because it gave you a sampling of different engineering disciplines,” she says, “you almost need to do further training so you have a specialty that you can market.” Speidel’s experience seems typical among BME graduates. In fact, it is generally understood that either some sort of advanced degree is required to advance in the field or BME is a means to some different end.
If the goal of the BME major is to get graduates jobs immediately after college, something needs to change. At least that much is clear to the students. Somehow, programs need to be redefined so that students are given a more visible course of action that more gracefully guides them into the job market.
“Practical, hands-on knowledge needs to be emphasized more,” Speidel says, “that’s tough to demonstrate in a job interview if you’ve only taken exams and have had no practical experience.” For instance, if students were interested in making pacemakers, she explains, they could be encouraged to take more electrical engineering classes in addition to premed requirements, rather than take the time learning about other areas of engineering. Or, since the field is so broad, an extra year could be made mandatory in a five-year bachelor’s–master’s program, where the final year is spent working on a major final project and perhaps getting some industry experience through internships. Some programs, like those at Cornell and Northeastern University, already are structured this way.
But perhaps BME should just be considered a part of today’s liberal arts model, where college is really about getting a well-rounded education. Across the board these days, few college graduates actually end up with jobs in their chosen course of study. Engineers, for the most part, are the exception to that rule—now we can strengthen that difference or weaken it. None of the graduates interviewed were upset with the current model—in fact, they were all happy with their educations, which is a good place to begin working.
Meet the Graduates
These 2014 BME graduates have all taken different career paths. Here’s what they had to say about their undergraduate educations and the opportunities that followed.
Andrew Li, University of Florida, Class of 2014
Li is a BME Ph.D. candidate at Johns Hopkins University.
Andrew Li started his college career as an electrical engineering major but soon realized the influence of his family of medical professionals was too strong to ignore and switched to BME. At that point, he wasn’t considering grad school, but he eventually realized that if he wanted a career in BME, he needed an advanced degree. “It’s always hard for a BME undergrad,” he says, “you don’t really learn anything too specific. Most [BME] companies actually prefer mechanical or electrical engineers, or other more specific engineering disciplines,” he says. If the goal is for students to land jobs right out of college, he says, BME programs should strongly encourage students to participate in research and incorporate more design courses for engineers into the curriculum. In the end, Li decided to pursue a career in academia, and he just began a BME Ph.D. program at Johns Hopkins University.
Nelson Smith, University of Michigan, Class of 2014
Smith will complete his fifth-year BME master’s program at the University of Michigan in Spring 2015.
Nelson Smith’s plan has always been to go to medical school, but he wanted to get a little more out of his bachelor’s degree than what the regular premed requirements offered. Specifically, he wanted to “go beyond” just diagnosing and treating his patients and instead preferred a comprehensive understanding of the tools he would be using to practice medicine. “As the field of health care continues to become even more technologically advanced,” he says, “having a solid understanding of how to use these devices as well as the desire to improve upon current methods is a valuable skill.” Before applying to medical school, Smith will complete a fifth year at the University of Michigan to receive his BME master’s degree through a dual-degree program offered at his school. Smith says that he “wouldn’t change a thing” about his education but believes it necessary for most students interested in a BME career to pursue education beyond the undergraduate level.
Jakub Truty, University of Michigan, Class of 2014
Truty completed his fifth-year master’s degree and is now working at Abbott Laboratories.
Jakub Truty already had a job lined up one year before getting his BME master’s degree. His BME program at California Polytehnic State University offers a so-called four-plus-one program: four years for a bachelor’s degree plus one year for a master’s degree. It helps that the college is located in Southern California, a hotbed for the BME industry, and has close ties to many companies in the area. Many BME students at the school get internships, which lead to jobs, usually under the condition they finish their master’s degree. For the people that don’t yet have jobs, Truty says, “they didn’t try hard enough.” He feels that, in general, not enough BME students take advantage of opportunities to get involved in research or seek internships, which puts them at a disadvantage in the job market.
Veronica Fleck, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Class of 2014
Fleck is working full time as biomedical engineer at Anuva Innovations.
Getting a bachelor’s degree in BME is tough work. Of the roughly 100 students that started out in the University of North Carolina (UNC), Chapel Hill’s BME program, only 29 made it all the way through. Veronica Fleck was one of them. The BME program at UNC is not yet accredited, yet every student in her class has a job lined up. Fleck herself just started a medical prototyping position at a small company where she interned for a year. But even though she and her classmates have done well, Fleck still feels there are some larger issues with the study of BME at the undergraduate level. “It’s hard to get your foot in the door if you’re a jack-of-all-trades,” she says. “Nobody wants to hire someone who just knows a little bit about everything.” Fleck was instrumental in starting a BME undergraduate club this year to “bridge the gap between the BME program and career services on the main campus,” she says. She believes that might help provide undergraduates with more direction during their studies.